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Why insisting that workers come to the office may not increase collaboration.
By Alison Maitland
The CFO of Google, a company central to the “anytime anywhere” work revolution, caused a stir recently by saying that his organization discouraged employees from working remotely because the office is where ideas flourish. Patrick Pichette’s view, reported by The Sydney Morning Herald during a visit to Australia, where the government is encouraging more people to telework, was that only by being in the office can people experience the “magical moments” by which companies, employees, and communities develop.
Shortly afterward came news that Yahoo! CEO and former Google executive Marissa Mayer had ordered remote-working employees to get back to the office. The baldly communicated company memo, leaked by employees, states that “[T]o become the absolute best place to work, communication and collaboration will be important, so we need to be working side-by-side. That is why it is critical that we are all present in our offices.”
These are retrograde attitudes from Internet giants, all the more ironic and bizarre because they’re the same companies that have given us the tools—email, chat, file storage, document sharing, discussion forums—to collaborate with others wherever in the world we happen to be. There is a paradox here. On the one hand, Google likes to have its people close by. A visit to any “GooglePlex,” with its quirky décor, free meals, deck chairs, and pool tables, underlines how keen the company is on physical presence and face-to-face collaboration. On the other, it gives its brainy engineers the option to take 20 percent of their time out of their main jobs to develop innovative services, thereby acknowledging that creativity requires freedom to flourish.
People often get their best ideas not during scheduled brainstorming sessions but in the shower or taking exercise or during any given moments that free their minds of the pressures of daily business decisions. Matt Brittin, Google’s VP for Northern and Central Europe, once said he gets his best ideas cycling to work through the park with only the deer for company.
So I’m surprised that senior figures at Google and Yahoo! apparently hold such conventional views about working in the office versus elsewhere. They seem to have fallen into the trap that catches many managers in more traditional enterprises that working in the office and working from home are two absolute, opposing states, rather than two of a growing range of options about how and where people work.
Pichette is right to focus on how to get people to collaborate effectively in the fast-changing digital world. He is also right that people can become isolated if they work from home—although the risk is greatest if they do it all the time and have no technological substitute for workplace buzz, such as videoconferencing or instant messaging. But he and Mayer are wrong to promote presence in the office as the single formula for successful collaboration. This enforces a one-size-fits-all style of management that assumes everyone is the same and responds to stimuli similarly—and it does so just as technology is opening up the prospect of an infinite range of individually tailored work styles.
There is now a pile of research evidence that people are more productive when they work remotely. That’s hardly surprising given the distractions of office life and back-to-back meetings. Cisco, another tech company, has even posed the provocative question, “Is the office really necessary?”, finding 60 percent of respondents to an international survey said that they did not need to be in an office to be productive. The numbers were especially high in places like China, Brazil, and particularly India, where more than nine out of ten workers said the office environment was unnecessary for productivity.
To unleash creativity and collaboration in today’s knowledge economy, we need to put freedom and choice, not rules and constraints, at center stage. That means providing individuals with options about how and where they work and meet and collaborate, and treating people as grown-up enough to find the best approach for the given task. It also means recognizing that this new world presents challenges as well as opportunities, and that some people will need more help than others.
So what can leaders and managers do to ensure that people are able to collaborate effectively, wherever their work location happens to be? Here’s a list of suggestions:
- Don’t panic. People will keep talking to each other, even when they are working remotely. One of the statistics that always strikes audiences comes from a teleworking pilot carried out by the U.S. General Services Administration, the agency responsible for federal buildings and facilities. Not only did productivity go up and carbon emissions from commuting go down but communication between employees increased by 55 percent.
- Give people tools. Programs such as Yammer allow people to collaborate wherever they are. Encourage your employees to share their whole experience, not just work. Andy Lake, author of the new book Smart Flexibility, recommends that organizations run internal LinkedIn-style business networking sites where people can post their experience and interests. “The value of this goes beyond the progression of the individual,” he writes. “By opening up new channels of collaboration, new avenues of innovation are also opened that can help to inject energy into the company.” This is such a valuable skill today that being good at online networking, and at connecting people and ideas, should count toward career advancement.
- Provide a choice of attractive spaces. Whether in a traditional corporate office or a new-style work hub, this is not just a matter of having spaces for different activities like concentrated work, brainstorming, private vs. open meetings, and small vs. large gatherings. It’s also about making provisions for different personality types. An interesting paper by psychologist Nigel Oseland for office-furniture manufacturer Herman Miller points out that extroverts prefer large, face-to-face groups, informal meetings, and stimulating spaces, while introverts prefer written communications, small groups, teleconferences, and quieter spaces. Since introverts often want to think things through before committing to ideas in public, you could encourage their participation in collaborative work by providing more private spaces next to main meeting areas for follow-up conversations.
- Create opportunities for serendipitous exchanges. Some of the best insights come from meeting people with different perspectives. Tom Ball, founder of NearDesk, which provides space in shared work hubs in the United Kingdom, is seeking ways to get people from different organizations (or strangers from the same company) talking to each other. At his flagship hub in London’s Kings Cross, four live information screens tell users who else is working there that day. One of the screens is by the kettle, where everyone tends to congregate. Each person chooses a status: green for “social,” amber for “busy,” and red for “very busy.” If you are in social mode, the screen displays information about what you do, as well as your name and photo, to encourage people to start conversations. It’s not only co-workers in shared spaces who need this—dispersed teams within a single company also need the leader to encourage virtual water-cooler conversations.
- Finally, and most importantly, build trust. Collaboration will not happen without it, and trust is a two-way street. It is not built by seeking to control employees’ every move, nor by turning twenty-first-century offices into nineteenth-century factories where people feel shackled to their workstations. It is built by creating an environment that values people as individuals, gives them clear goals, and inspires them to contribute their very best.
The Conference Board
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